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Monday, March 15, 2021

The Nasty, Brutish, And Short Lives Of Arthur, Rhode Island–And How A Brown Professor Sought The Holy Grail On Henry Avenue

Arthur, Rhode Island is a small town not far from Providence known for its small shoe factory and a once-prosperous textile mill on the banks of the Lower Branch of the Nawsauket  River.  Over the years it became subsumed within the Greater Providence Metropolitan Area and lost whatever individual distinction it ever had.  

Few travelers had any idea that they had left Providence, Cranston, or Pawtucket.  Addresses changed, there were more railroad crossings and freight depots than in the city proper, the houses were single-family with only a few three-story aluminum siding walkups common in Providence but all had the same feel. 

There were two small but pleasant parks – Woodside, on the banks of the Nawsauket, and Ferndale, a pocket park on land gifted to the city by the owner of Bennett Tool and Die.  Along Henry Avenue, the main thoroughfare from Providence to Warwick and southwest to Westerly there were all-you-can-eat Italian restaurants, donut shops, diners, and nail salons. Most people in Arthur were born there, sons and daughters of Italian and Portuguese immigrants who had worked in the town’s shoe factory or the textile mills in Fall River for generations. 

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Life in Arthur as in many New England cities was ordinary, uneventful, and predictable.  The town was by no means poor, had no slums or inner cities to speak of, and was no more unattractive than the hundred other mill and factory towns of New England.  Everyone made a good living, the schools were acceptable and some quite good, the housing old but solid, and the community more intact than most suburban towns close to larger cities like Boston or Hartford.

From a different perspective Arthur was a dismal town, crisscrossed by railroad tracks, on two major truck routes, side-by-side with warehouses, shipping bays, used car lots; characterized by broken fixtures, hallelujah storefronts, and filthy eateries; and without charm or any glimpse of anything upscale.  Arthur was indeed ‘real’ but that meant cheap waitresses, tasteless food, pooled  motor oil, chipped cement, and the banging of semi rigs headed to 95.

Before retirement Barton Elvey had been a professor of Linguistics and Social Theory at Brown. A devotee of Derrida, Lacan, and Marx, he had been influential in transforming the second rate Humanities Department into a respected center of Deconstructionist, Post-Modern thought.  He had been instrumental in ridding the curriculum of culturally irrelevant works, hiring new, young feminists and gay men to add diversity and ‘orientational intensity’ to the faculty, and to engineer a wholescale revolution of thought at Brown.  No longer the weak sister of the Ivy League, almost single-handedly Elvey had brought the university into national academic prominence. 

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Unlike most of his colleagues who had chosen to live on Federal Hill – the elegant Colonial gem of Providence – Elvey chose to live in Arthur.  There was something intellectually pure about living in a place so devoid of character, charm, or personality – a deconstructionist’s dream.  Life in Arthur had none of his colleagues’ summers on the Vineyard, skiing in Gstaad, or Saturdays at the Met .  It was no different from a text stripped bare of its intellectual pretentions, removed from artistic ‘creation’, allowing life only as it illuminated social struggle.  

If Hamlet and slave journals were intellectually and artistically equal with no qualitative difference between them, then Arthur, New York, San Francisco, and Biarritz were one and the same.  It was only misplaced intellectual ambition and surmise that trapped men and women in vain hopes of prominence. A life of quiet, patient, ordinariness was Post-Modernism’s Holy Grail; and he had found it.

Barton’s neighbors of course wondered why he had moved to Arthur when he could have lived anywhere.  Word had it that he had turned down offers from Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton to reform Brown Humanities; and with his wife’s fortune (she was the daughter of a Western mining billionaire) he could indeed have had vacation homes in Gstaad, St Tropez, and Majorca.  Yet such was the fury and insolence of Deconstructionism – to be committed to the principle of existential valuelessness, one could not buy expensive trinkets and keep one’s self-respect. 

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If he were to value his valueless neighbors -  to glorify his shoe factory, steel-toe boots and overalls, closing time, lunch box shift neighbors, he would be betraying notions of ‘meaning and meaningless’. So how to strike a balance between respect and lack of interest; between friendliness and idealization; and most importantly between inbred family notions of aristocratic superiority, the vital importance of class, culture, and taste?  As hard as he tried, the bowling night talk of soap operas, baseball, Portagees, hair, and grinders was more than he could take.  His smile was at Loretta but his mind was on Kant. 

For most people, this disconnect would have been revealing.  No amount of academic intellectualization could ever disguise the Hobbesian brutishness of lower middle class life.  No amount of parsing or existential reordering would do the trick.  Deconstructionism would be an intellectually fraudulent theory, and its prophets Derrida and Lacan nothing but academic  poseurs.  A quick glance at their deliberately opaque, obfuscating, and imprecise writings would be enough to discredit the entire movement:

Derrida questions Saussure’s two-faced sign, the maintenance of the rigorous distinction between the signifier and the signified. This leaves open the possibility of thinking a concept signified in and of itself, a concept simply present for thought, independent of a relationship to a system of signifiers. Derrida’s term for such a concept is a ‘transcendental signified’, which in essence refer to no signifier.

Yet like most academics Barton Elvey had too many sunken costs in Deconstructionism, Humanities Departments, and academia to have any trace of objectivity left.  He could not see the existential hand before his face.  The nasty lives of the factory workers, manicurists, hair stylists, waitresses, and lathe operators neither signed nor signified anything.  They were as is, irrelevant stops along the way. They were neither to be pitied or championed, analyzed or deconstructed.  They were and always had been enablers – necessary, supported, and considered but never accorded a place in anyone’s pantheon. They were toilers in the vineyards. 

Deconstruction means reducing everything – all individual enterprise – to a common, indistinguishable mess.  It equates Shakespeare with a telephone linesman; Jesus with a snake-oil salesman; Faulkner with Days of Our Lives; and Arthur, RI with Park Avenue, Beacon Hill, or Forest Glen.  Doing so renders both and all worthless.  To acknowledge the vast differences in ability, intelligence, breeding, wealth, and good fortune is to ascribe relative value – to suggest that all lives are not equal, that some are more able and fortunate than others, but that such difference is not a zero-sum game.  No one would choose to work on the floor of the Arthur shoe factory, but if circumstance was so configured, so be it.

By the time he was in his early 70s Professor Elvey had had quite enough of academia, the intellectual chicanery of Derrida, Lacan, and their claques, and the Hobbesian life of Arthur, Rhode island.  Thanks to his wife’s inheritance, he could be done with both; and he, thanks to his wife’s inheritance from a wealthy Boston Brahman, bought houses in St Bart’s and Rimini, and put as much distance as he could between him and a life which had been as brutal as those in Arthur. 

In the final accounting, building and basing a career on a discredited intellectual theory was no different than running a lathe in Bigelow Tool and Die and bowling ten pins at Bowl-a-Rama.

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‘Stick to your own kind’ goes the refrain of a popular song from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, and after far too many decades he understood it.  He had been born a wealthy, educated, cultured New England patrician; had given it up for the double life of dubious academician and working class wannabe, and now, finally, was returning to his roots, a place where he belonged, where he had always belonged. 

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